, EDINBURGH, Oct 16 – Britain’s prime minister and Scotland’s first minister signed an agreement on Monday to hold a referendum in 2014 on Scottish independence that could lead to the United Kingdom breaking up after 300 years.
Prime Minister David Cameron and pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond inked the deal and shook hands in cold autumn sunlight after a meeting at the Scottish government building, St Andrews House, in Edinburgh.
Cameron strongly opposes a Scottish breakaway, and the signing of the terms for the vote fires the starting gun on two years of campaigning which puts the leaders on opposing sides.
After months of negotiations, the deal clears the way for Scotland’s administration to hold the vote in the last quarter of 2014, offering Scots a straight yes-no question on leaving the United Kingdom.
Securing the vote was a victory for veteran politician Salmond, who has spent his political career backing the idea of an independent Scotland, but he faces an uphill battle to bring a majority of Scots around to his view.
He told reporters after the signing: “I’m delighted to say that the Edinburgh agreement… paves the way for the most important decision Scotland has made in several hundred years.
“I believe that independence will win this campaign. I believe we’ll win it by setting out a better future for our country,” he said.
His Scottish National Party (SNP), the majority party in Edinburgh’s devolved parliament, must fight against a “No” campaign from all three big parties in the British parliament: Cameron’s Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
Cameron said: “This is an important day for our United Kingdom, but you can’t hold a country in the United Kingdom against the will of its people.
“Scotland voted for a party that wanted to hold a referendum. I believe in showing respect. This is the right outcome for Scotland and for the United Kingdom to give the people the choice.
“But I passionately hope and believe that they will vote to keep the United Kingdom together. We are better off together, we are stronger together, we are safer together.”
— Support for independence slipping —
A survey by ComRes for ITV News released on Monday showed 34 percent of Scots and 29 percent of Britons in favour while other polls have shown similar results.
But Salmond urged pundits not to write him off too soon, citing his party’s surprise election victory in May 2011, which gave it a parliamentary majority and opened the door for the referendum.
“We turned a substantial opinion poll deficit into a substantial election victory. We did that by winning the arguments,” he said.
“We intend to win the argument for independence.”
The SNP had pressed for the 2014 date, giving them time to try to win over voters and coinciding with the anniversary of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, a famous Scots victory over the English.
The vote is to break new ground by including 16 and 17-year-olds, a move favoured by Salmond’s side, but in a concession to the British government the ballot paper will not offer a third option of increased devolution.
The SNP says Scotland — with a population of five million — should be able to run its own foreign, economic and defence policies, and plans to set out fuller terms of the proposed separation within a year.
The devolved Scottish government currently has powers over areas such as health and education, as well as a separate legal system.
Salmond wants to retain the sterling currency and the British monarch as head of state, but big questions remain such as the fate of revenues from North Sea oil reserves and the debt incurred by Royal Bank of Scotland’s state bailout.
An independent Scotland would hold its first parliamentary elections in 2016 and then draft a written constitution, Salmond said.
He added he was “interested and informed” by parallels elsewhere in Europe, such as the Spanish region of Catalonia, where a drive for self-determination has gathered momentum amid the economic crisis.
Salmond was questioned Monday on another sensitive point — the sense of unity which led Scots athletes including tennis ace Andy Murray and cyclist Chris Hoy to wrap themselves in the Union Jack flag when they won Olympic gold medals in London.
“We’re not in the business of ripping things up,” he insisted.
“We’re in the business of creating a new relationship between the people of these islands.”